Election’s Erections

December 13, 2005

Repetition can be funny.

Repetition can be funny.

Repetition can be funny.

It is election season and having offered my own trivial observations on the Argentine elections, I thought I’d move on to the Chilean elections. Near our hotel in Santiago there is a traffic rotary with hundreds of identical or nearly identical signs erected. It looks like a bit like a big brother for office campaign. Even better it is not just one loco politico, there are several.

I can’t really believe that this sort of (forgive the pun) in your face advertising works, but perhaps it does.

Buenos Aires: Buenos Photos

December 12, 2005

Collage of Buenos Aires PhotosBefore I left I talked to my friends Colin and Angie (both great photographers) and asked them to look at some of my pictures. I wanted to know how I could take better pictures. Angie was very kind in talking to me about composition and the rule of thirds. But, she kept saying things like, this is a nice photo, but… The conversation concluded with both her and Colin telling me that I need an SLR camera rather than a point and shoot to improve my photos. Well after much agonizing I concluded they were right!

I bought a Canon Digital Rebel XT and I have been playing with it for the last four days here in Buenos Aires.

See a selection of Buenos Aires Photos from my new camera. They are not too bad…

Chech Mate(s)

December 1, 2005

You never know who you’ll meet on the road. I spent three weeks travelling with Barbara, a Brazilian woman, and Ronald, her Slovak boyfriend. In Bariloche, Ronald met Pavel and Petr, two Chech guys with an environmental clean up company in Prague. They were on vacation in Argentina and preparing to head down route 40 on their BMW motorcycles. We all met up for some drinks and to make a night of it.

There was drinking involved, and not all of the details are completely clear, but some of the evenings highlights included:

  • Watching Petr consume a seemingly endless series of flaming B-52 shots while wearing a hat with fake dreadlocks.
  • Everyone taking their turn arm wrestling Pavel.
  • Watching them pick up the waitress. That is, literally pick her up and hold her 4 feet off the ground for a photo.
  • Our accidental foray in to a techno bar where the average age could hardly have topped 18 and a half.

Suffice it to say when they invited us to look them up in Prague, I instantly said I would.

Jon versus the Volcano

November 29, 2005

The gentle, “chack, chack, chack” sounds fill my head. It is the tinkling of a tuxedo-clad butler using an ice pick to turn a block of ice in to something suitable for cocktails. Then the wind roars and I glance up and realize there is no butler, only a dozen trekkers 150 meters above me with their crampons and ice axes plodding up the ice covered Villarica volcano in Pucon, Chile.

Our day starts at seven AM, when Soyan and I, along with six former strangers that proximity has converted into pseudo family, arrive at Aguaventura and pick up the our boots and packs filled the previous day with crampons, gloves, snow pants and the gear of adventure.

We are bursting with the excitement that our hip, young, trilingual coordinator cum salesman, has filled us with, just as efficiently as he has filled our packs with gear. We were all anxious to get a close up look at Pucon’s famous volcano, and then to sled down on our butts, saving ourselves the trouble of walking.

As we arrive at the base of the volcano, while bundling up, we get a little speech about how there is no guarantee we will summit because of the windy conditions. Furthermore the wind might prevent the ski lift from running (adding an extra 400 or 500 meters to our climb). If we don’t want to go, or don’t think you can make it, this is the opportunity to say so. After a pause far too brief to let it all sink in they say, “OK, let’s go” and the trip has begun.

Five minutes later we discover that, it is in fact, far too windy for the ski lift to run. It occurs to me that they must have know this when they warned us of the “possibility”. What sounded like a standard welcome was in fact a, cover your ass, “we told you so”.

After we finished the walk up below the ski lift and stopped to put on our crampons. We received a surprisingly casual and brief tutorial on their use, and the use of our ice axe. I later learned that a lack of understanding, or perhaps a lack of interest, in these details led to the death of an Israeli tourist several years ago. I suggest the possibility of a lack of interest because apparently the Israelis have a reputation for being somewhat independently minded. They don’t seem to like staying in the single file line that is the mountain climbing convention. Later, in Bariloche, I’ll discover that for similar reasons, there is only one rafting company left that will still take Israelis on the class 3/4 river that borders Chile.

Returning to the Volcano, if you do take a tumble and begin sliding down the mountain, you’ll want to lift your feet up to prevent the crampons from catching the ice and breaking your ankles or legs as your body is tossed over your feet and sent hurdling head first down the mountain. With your feet up, you’ll want to slam your ice axe in to the crust of the icy surface and use it as a break. Failing to do this properly can result in a slide (or fall) of several kilometers, when the surface is windswept ice, as it is on our climb.

When we arrived at a concrete cave to take shelter from wind before our final ascent, a climber in our group unintentionally demonstrated how quickly and easily things fall by dropping the helmet that had been clipped to his backpack. Before anyone could react, the helmet was hundreds of feet down the mountain. At the end of the day, the helmet (both halves) were retrieved a mile below its release point. That was when I first wondered why we had not been instructed to wear our helmets.

In the end we climbed 3900 feet up an active volcano covered in ice before we were told that the combination of excessive volcano gas and the more or less constant 30 mph winds meant we could not make the summit and see the lava.

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself that sliding down on our butts using an ice axe as a break over 3 kilometers of ice sounds dangerous. It seems that you are correct. The volcano was deemed too icy for safe sliding and we had to walk back down. Nevertheless, the descent was so much easier than the climb up, that I could not complain. I managed to finish the trek with only a blister and a slight cough from the sulfur and I felt pretty lucky.

And you think I have a big head

November 19, 2005
    Jonathan and some Moai
    An excerpt from Throat Culture’s “Easter Island Head”:
    I am a man with an ordinary head.
    I am a man with a typical life.
    I am a man with an ordinary job.
    I am a man with a typical wife
    I saw a postcard.
    It was mailed out to me.
    It had a picture of
    How I want my life to be.
    I want a head like the heads you see on Easter Island.
    I want a big strong forehead.
    I want to stand up tall.
    I want a head like the heads you see on Easter Island.
    I want to stare at the seaside and do nothing at all!

Ignoring the fact that the Moai (the big stone heads) actually stare inland, not at the seaside, I think that sums up what I knew about Easter Island (or Rapa Nui as the locals call it) before planning this trip. Easter island always seemed to me the height of exotic, but it was a place that only existed on postcards. Now, having visited the island and read the Rough Guide to Chile, I know the sad history. It begins with a civil war that toppled all the Moai, then foreigners enslaved the locals. The end of slavery was followed by disease that wiped out not only those that survived the slavery and were returned home, but all of the indigenous people still living on the island. This was followed by a period of general neglect.

Despite all this, my image of the island remains little more than a that of a spectactular photo shoot, the stuff of postcards. We spent 4 days on the island. Two full days, plus the arrival and depature days, which are the sort of non-days that travel makes possible.

On the first day we rented a 4X4 and drove to see the major sites on the southern half of the island. We saw fallen moai and those that have been restored to their upright position. We climbed to the top of the quarry where hundreds of partially carved and complete Moai remain. We even visited the seperate quarry where the top knots (the rock hats) some Moai wear were carved. It was all beautiful and exotic, but it is really not more than a day or two to see it all.

On our second day we walked 13 miles along the northern coast from the beach to town and saw only 4 people once we left the beach until we reached town. We did see hundreds of cows and horses grazing in endless fields of volcanic rock and endless spectatular ocean vistas. We navigated at least a dozen barbed wire fences and took lots of pictures — after all that seems to be Easter Island’s only export.

I am glad I went, and the Island makes a great postcard, but it doesn’t have the stuff of long letters.

A selection of our Easter Island Photos.

I am so behind

November 14, 2005

I am in Bariloche, Argentina until tommorow morning when I head south on the famous route 40 via Perrito Moreno and then El Chalten finally on to Calafate. I’ll post a map soon.

I am completely behind on my blog, but coming soon is:

Photos of Easter Island.
My account of climbing the Volcano Villarica in Pucon, Chile.
Observations on Santiago.
And another half dozen of the odd little things that amuse me on the road.

Hoping to catch up soon. Thanks, Jonathan

Everything is for Sail

November 6, 2005

Manuel windsurfing in RodeoOctober 20th — For 10 years Manuel lived in San Juan, Argentina selling insurance. Four years ago he decided that that wasn’t the life for him. He sold all of his accounts and closed his office. He was a windsurfer, and while San Juan was just 199 kilometers from some of the best windsurfing in the world, it was 199 kilometers too far.

Manuel moved to Rodeo, a mountain town of less than 2000 people. It was a town without a movie theater, a bank, or even a single taxi. It did, however, have something special. In 1998 the government built a dam to generate hydroelectric power and improve irrigation from the Andean snow melt. Unfortunately, the hydroelectric project has been a failure. The dam does ensure a reliable supply of water to the city of Jachal 44 kilometers to the east, but it hasn’t been as useful for irrigation as had been anticipated.

What the dam did do beautifully was create a lake 5800 feet above sea level, right in the middle of some of the most reliable winds in the world. Along the southern shore is Playa Lamaral, the best beach on the lake. While it lacks the sand of coastal beaches it more than makes up for it with spectacular views of the snow capped Andes that feed the lake and the ridged brown foothills to the northeast.

Playa Lamaral is the spot that Manuel had scoped out as the best beach in his endless visits to the dique, both during construction of the dam and in the years immediately after. The beach was just a few hundred kilometers down the road from the enormous farmhouse that Manuel leased and turned into the Hostel, Rancho Lamaral. He knew this was going to be a special area, and he had the forethought to get some of the best real estate. The area is known as Cuesta Del Viento.

Manuel caters to a mix of windsurfers, fans and travellers on a budget looking for something different, and he does so really well. Soyan and I spent 4 terrific days here learning to windsurf in the relative calm of the mornings and watching the expert windsurfers put on a show when the big winds came out, late each afternoon. We also met a pair of travellers from Buenos Aires taking a break from camping and enjoying the laidback lifestyle at Rancho Lamaral. It is hard to camp when you can sleep in a bed with clean sheets, take a hot shower, watch a movie from the large video library and get breakfast included for just $15.00 pesos ($5.00 USD) a night.

Beyond windsurfing there is horseback riding, rafting and caves to explore, but having been away from work for a while now I chose to spend my time differently. I spent a few hours in a strategy session with Manuel where he and I designed some windsurfing packages. Then I set to work on a Spanish language and an English language a flyer for Rancho and Playa Lamaral. I also put him in touch with another entrepreneur who runs a nice hostal in Mendoza. You can take the entreprenuer out of the business, but not the business out of the entrepreneur.

If you like to windsurf or you are just looking for something different, now you really can windsurf in the Andes.

Here are some photos:

Windsurfers showing off.
Gaston and Mauro
Manuel the owner of Lamaral
Jonathan learning to windsurf

Everyone should be taking Lithium

November 5, 2005

Everyone should be taking Lithium… Lithium batteries anyway. I have been using Energizer Lithium e2 batteries in my GPS, and in my limited testing I get 24-32 hours of opertational use from a single pair. This compares with around 7 hours with a pair of regular energizer batteries.

The e2 batteries cost much more than regular batteries, but the cost are pretty similar per hour of use and the e2 lithium batteries are much more convenient since I don’t need to change batteries nearly so often. The e2 batteries also weigh half as much as conventional batteries. That makes a big difference when you start carrying a dozen spare batteries. It is even better when you realize that you get the power of 36 regular energizer batteries with the weight of only 6.

My only note of caution, at least in my GPS. The batteries gauge reads completely full until maybe 40 minutes before the batteries die completely, so I always carry a spare set.

So take some lithium on your next trip.

Sock her? No, Football.

November 2, 2005

Boca fans watching the Boca vs River game.October 16th — As I approach Cirilo, a non descript San Juan restaurant, I see the sign announcing 24 hour service. Still, not sure if the place is open. All the windows are covered with brown paper and I am afraid I am going to be out of luck for lunch. Then I see it, a lazy scrawl across one of the sheets of paper that reads “Boca Rio 16:25″. I realize not only are they open, they are bracing for a crowd.

This morning as I checked out of my hostel in Mendoza, the owner mentioned that there was a big match this afternoon. Perhaps, the biggest of the year. I glance at my watch. It is, ten of four, and apparently Soyan and I are just in time.

As we enter one waiter greets us, as the other begins to lazily draw the curtains covering the few remaining floor to ceiling windows not already papered over.

We are eating our sandwiches along with a half dozen families when I notice a change. It is as if the dining room itself hits puberty. With sudden and unforeseen urgency the room gets dark as all the lights are extinguished. It gets crowded as groups of teenage boys suddenly begin to out number the families. It is no longer quiet as the television’s volume swells competing with the surging pregame chatter.

Everyone is ordering drinks and waiting for the real spectacle to begin, but in the meantime another game is on. Arsenal is playing Velez. Velez just scored: Gooooooooooooal. Apparently, there are a few fans here, because there is a smattering of applause punctuating the chatter. As heavy trays of food and drink are rushed out of the kitchen, it is time to change the channel. The Boca River game is going to begin.

Wraaaah! The room roars and the applause is deafening as the Boca players stream onto the field. I am clearly among Boca fans. Then there is the pounding techno beat of a sneaker commercial and the crowd returns to their beer and cigarettes. I struggle to count a dozen of over 200 people in the room that are not smoking.

It is the kick off and the game is underway. After a few minutes of play a River player looks crest fallen at a missed head of the ball. There are cheers from the room. In fact, every time a player in white, a River player, takes a spill there are cheers. Taunting your rivals is every bit the obligation of cheering for your own team.

The game unfolds with the choreography of a kung fu film. There is running, diving, kicking and the ball flies from man to man like it is on a string. By US standards “nothing has happened” because the game is scoreless, but the faces in the room reveal an energy, an excitement, a commitment to the struggle that tells a different story. The energy rivals and may well surpass that of a Red Sox versus Yankees game.

We are 11 minutes into the game and the late arrivals are scouring the room for empty chairs. The smoke is thick. A Boca player shoves an opponent from behind causing him to miss his shot. His behavior is lauded with cheering and applause.

32 min into the game the place is standing room only. It is Mother’s day here in Argentina, but mom will have to wait, because football (soccer) is clearly the most important thing on earth. Boca and River are definitely the most important teams.

An injured River player draws jeers. Nothing, not even the coach’s voice escapes ridicule. Ruthless mocking of the opposition seems a minimum requirement for a fan. Even though I have been drawn in to the excitement, I am not really a fan and the smoke is overwhelming. I am just a guy that stumbled in here for lunch and I am tired from getting up early.

At halftime, Soyan and I slip out and head back to our hotel for a nap. This means we’ll miss what promises to be an earthquake of post game activity, either celebration or retribution depending on the outcome. This seems a shame, but were glad for the taste of soccer passion we’ve sampled.

When I next get Internet access, I am curious to learn a little bit more about the game we had been watching. I stumble across an article explaining that I just witnessed one of the greatest football rivalries of all time.

This derby is considered to be one of the most exciting in the world. in 2004, British newspaper The Observer made a list of the 50 sporting things you must do before you die, with Watch Boca Juniors play River Plate in Buenos Aires at the top of the list.

I guess we should have stayed for the second half.

Ask not for whom the wind blows…

October 31, 2005

After we rented a car in San Juan, we decided to head to the small mountain town of Barreal, because we had read about carrovelismo, or land sailing, a sport where you attach a cart to a boat sail. It sounded like fun, and the pampas of Barreal, an 8 mile long and 2 mile wide dry lake bed, were supposed to be an ideal spot with reliable winds.

We arrived in Barreal late in the day, after driving some rough roads. We made an appointment to go sailing the next afternoon, since there is little wind in the morning, but in afternoon the winds can reach up to 50 miles per hour.

With the next morning to kill, we decided to take a hike and then see the observatory located near pampas. While the Andes surround Barreal, if you are walking from town to take a hike you are limited to the dry slag heaps that surround the town. They are, even by desert standards, exceptionally uninteresting. For those familiar with the American west, they less attractive than the Badlands of South Dakota and lacking the “excitement” of Wall Drug.

After our hike, we visited Leonocito, “The most important observatory in South America — operated by a national government of South America within their own country,” or so we were told. It was actually very interesting. I had never been to a working observatory and I learned a lot, including how a reflector telescope works (it uses a pair of mirrors rather than a lens). I also learned that in addition to light, heat pollutes astronomical observations (think about those mirages you see on the highway on hot summer days) so the entire area surrounding the telescope has to be keep 2 degrees below the outside temperature, even when the outside temperature is was 4 degrees below zero F (-20 C).

Beyond the educational component, our guide offered ample entertainment by explaining the history of the project. She explained how the telescope had been purchased in the 1960’s and the observatory had immediately started construction. Then with great pride she also explained how, rather than wasting money buying expensive off-the-shelf systems, Argentina had opted to build all the supporting hardware and software themselves. Even with little distractions for the government like the Falkland Islands war, the observatory became functional March 1st, 1987, a scant 25 years or so after they started! She then repeatedly explained how it was not obsolete. We thanked her for what really had been a wonderful tour and headed down the bumpy road to the smooth pampas for our land sailing appointment.

As we drove toward the lake bed, I noticed that there wasn’t really much wind on the road. As it turned out there wasn’t any wind on the lake bed either. We spent an hour and a half waiting to see if the wind picked up while we chatted with the charming guy who rents the land sailing equipment and who had been sailing there for twenty years. I took lots of photos. Finally, I taught Soyan to drive a stick shift, since there was nothing to hit for miles in any direction. Still, there was just no wind. We tried to make plans for the next day but as it turned out our guide (the only guide) was headed in for surgery and was going to be gone for a week. Apparently the wind was not going to blow for me.

We packed up and decided we’d go to Rodeo the next day to try our hand at windsurfing. Maybe they’d would have some wind.

Photos of land sailing even though there was not any wind.
Photos of the Leonocito observatory.

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